What is a Murder Hornet? Dangerous Killer Asian Giant Hornets Threaten Beehives After Invading U.S.

The term "murder hornets" quickly went viral after news that a fearsome insect from Asia had been recently spotted in the U.S., but the invasive species is unlikely to pose a direct threat to Americans already on edge due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Asian giant hornets were first confirmed in the U.S. after being found in Blaine, Washington in December. They have been spotted again recently, having likely emerged from hibernation in April. The hornets have yet to be reported in any other part of the country.

The giant hornets are the largest species in the world, sometimes growing two inches long with a three-inch wingspan. Their six-millimeter-long stinger is said to inflict excruciating pain and deliver a potent neurotoxin, although scientists say they are largely uninterested in people.

However, the hornet's reputation for "murder" is not entirely unfounded. People who disturb nests, which the hornets build into the ground, can be killed after being stung multiple times. Even one sting can be deadly for those with allergies, and the insects are known to be capable of killing people with some regularity, including up to 50 per year in Japan.

Asian giant hornet
Asian giant hornets are the largest hornet species in the world, growing up to 2 inches long with a three-inch wingspan. Kagenmi/Getty

Experts stress that the primary threat posed by the invasive species is a potential devastation of honey bee populations. The hornets can quickly destroy entire beehives, infiltrating the hives and dispatching bees at a rate of 40 per minute by decapitating the bees and making off with their torsos to feed to their young.

"You want to talk about beepocalypse," University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Entomology Professor May Berenbaum told The New York Times. "They are sworn enemies of honey bees. I would say a bee's worst nightmare. Probably the worst nightmare of a lot of people, too."

It is unclear how the insects moved from Asia to the U.S., but species have been known to arrive in overseas cargo and quickly establish populations once released into the wild.

The possibility that the hornets could have arrived by way of Canada has been suggested, especially since Blaine sits on the border with British Columbia, where the hornets were spotted months before the first U.S. sighting.

However, a genetic analysis of a hornet found in Washington state was reportedly not a match with the insects found in British Columbia and experts believe the species was likely introduced multiple times.

The hornets could potentially establish themselves throughout North America and cause further damage to bee populations that have already been sharply declining in recent years. Attempts to eradicate the populations found in Washington State and British Columbia are currently underway.

Scientists may have been anticipating the U.S. arrival of the hornet for some time. Purdue University's Pest Tracker lists the insect as "not found" in Hawaii multiple times in 2016 and 2017. Newsweek reached out to Purdue University for clarification but did not receive a response in time for publication.